The small town of Crookwell NSW is surrounded by a mountainous landscape peppered with fragrant lemon gums and stone ruins. A short drive from town, at the peak of the Great Dividing Range, is the Alto Olives farm. Olives grown at the farm have many destinies: dropped into gin martinis, splashed over fine cuisine at Sydney’s best restaurants and as a pantry staple for many Sydney foodies. They start at the same quiet farm, grown from soil cultivated using practices adapted from Mediterranean agriculture.
Robert Armstrong has had a relationship with the land, which had long been toiled as old-world sheep country, since his 20s. Today, at age 75, he is one of the world’s leading producers of olive oil. What started as a retirement hobby turned into an obsession, inspired by a European countryside covered in ancient olive trees.
Alto has played the slow game. After the first few attempts at growing olives in the region failed, Robert visited Spain, Italy and Greece to deepen his knowledge of soil. Over several years he studied olive farming before returning to Australia to perfect the process on local land. Olives take between 3-7 years before they can be harvested. After being hand sorted and rinsed, the olives are brined in rainwater and Olsson’s Sea Salt for 9-16 months. Robert doesn’t cut, bruise nor pierce the olives and refreshes the water constantly. Many olive producers add caustic soda to speed up this process, but Alto are proudly chemical-free.
Like wine, olive groves respond to geographical location and climate. Surrounded by a cool and rugged landscape, Alto crops have taken on a unique Australian flavour that has inspired Chefs and home cooks nationwide. Rich, fresh and fruity, their olives and oils are easy to splash over absolutely everything.
Alto is now a family operation, with Robert’s daughter Westerley running the business as Robert works the land, a practice he says makes him fitter than he was 25 years ago. They were an original stallholder when Carriageworks Farmers Market opened in 2010 and are now a Sydney food favourite. Add their olive oil to your next meal to taste years of care, consideration and labour at high altitude.
Alto Olive oil is featured in these recipes:
Joel Bennetts’ Creamed Leek, Garlic and Black Pepper Agnolotti
Federico Zanallato’s Pici with Artichokes, Prawns and Shellfish Oil
Flavio Carnavale’s Cacio e Pepe
The Meet the Producer Series presented in partnership with Smeg Australia.
Photography by Dillon Seitchik-Reardon
Words by Isabelle Comber